Exploring Tegel Airport, or The Time I was Detained by German Airport Police and Almost Missed My Flight

In my experience, if I’m going to have problems with my flights or anything on a vacation, it will more likely than not be on the return home. Because why allow the relaxation or positive feelings to even stay with you until you get home. My Berlin trip did not disappoint on this front.

My routing home was from Berlin to JFK on Air Berlin, in business class, connecting on American in JFK to DCA.  I had allowed for a leisurely trip to the airport from the Hyatt, planning to take the 200 bus from Potsdamer Platz to the Zoo Station, and then the express bus from Zoo Station to Tegel. The total trip should have been 35 to 50 minutes depending on wait times.  Of course as I reached the bus stop a few blocks from the Hyatt, I saw that the 200 bus was pulling away.  I didn’t worry much, because I had taken the 200 bus 5 or 6 times over the past several days, and never had waited more than 5 minutes. Something must have been up though, as the display showed the next bus was not for another 20 minutes. I thought about waiting, but then thought I should just take the S-bahn or U-bahn from Potsdamer Platz to Zoo Station, figuring there must be a way to do so. On the way, though, I passed the taxi line outside the Ritz Carlton, and decided that would just be the easiest way to go, especially since I still had 65 Euros in cash on me and I’d read that a taxi to Tegel was about 20 Euros and 15 minutes.

But the taxi hit monstrous traffic, and the driver kept muttering one curse word over and over (the only one I know in German). He ended up making a series of questionably aggressive moves before just making a U-turn and taking us on an alternate back route. He was friendly about it, though, and even with the traffic and reroute I was at the airport in 25 minutes, and the fare was 21.80 Euros.

Berlin-Tegel was supposed to close four years ago, as Berlin was opening a new airport, Brandenburg, alongside the current, smaller airport farther outside the city, Schonefeld. Brandenburg has been plagued with delays, and almost opened in February 2012, but didn’t due to construction problems. Now, there isn’t even an estimated opening date.

That means Tegel remains open, but no one is really investing in the infrastructure. Tegel is one of those 1960s era airports that was designed in a circle so everyone could go right from the gate to the curb and vice versa, so there is no “airside,” as security and check-in counters are both right at the gate. There was no wait at priority check-in for my Air Berlin flight to JFK, and the agent efficiently checked me in, and told me my bag was checked through to Washington (though I knew I’d actually have to pick it up at JFK anyway). No lounges were mentioned, but I of course had already investigated that.

Tegel Airport

Tegel Airport

The lounge scenario at Tegel makes absolutely no sense. There are a number of lounges, but as an Air Berlin business class passenger I had access to two that are right on top of each other. First was the British Airways Terraces lounge, which I could access both as a OneWorld Sapphire and as a OneWorld premium cabin flyer, and then there’s an Air France Lounge, which explicitly says “also welcoming Air Berlin passengers.” I can’t help but wonder if this is some sort of historical anomaly -perhaps predating Air Berlin’s joining One World in 2012- or perhaps British Airways feared being overwhelmed with Air Berlin passengers, but I’ve never been at an airport where an alliance member used a different lounge than the alliance partner lounge when they were in the same location.

Stacked lounges

Stacked lounges

The reviews I had read suggested that the British Airways lounge was better than the Air France one, so I went there first. It was nice and open and airy, although the furniture was a bit worn. It was empty when I first got there, but got more crowded as the time passed, as a BA flight to Heathrow and a Finnair flight to Helsinki were boarding before my own flight. It must have been an in-between time food wise, as there was pretty much nothing out, other than one tray of unappealing sandwiches, two cakes, and some crisps. I made myself a cappuccino, and helped myself to a glass of champagne, logged onto the wifi, and did some blogging. What stood out most to be was the muzak of pop hits playing in the lounge, which reminded me of American’s boarding music, and was actually the only time I’ve noticed music in a lounge.IMG_1734

British Airways Terraces Lounge TXL

British Airways Terraces Lounge TXL

As the lounge filled up, I figured I’d check out the Air France lounge about ten steps above. The agent there was friendly and checked me in, and I immediately noticed that the food spread was much more substantial. Perhaps it was just that they still had the breakfast spread out – including yogurt, cereals, muffins, and croissants – but they also had a wide array of packaged snacks, and meat and cheeses. The cutest, though something I’d never eat, was the hot dog counter. Again, I wasn’t very hungry, but the champagne was of a much higher quality, and I enjoy drinking a Diet Coke out of a glass bottle. The agent had warned me that the internet was very slow, so I didn’t try it. But the worst part by far was that, in the Air France lounge, two German women were sitting and watching a German movie or soap opera on a laptop, sans headphones, at full volume. I don’t understand how anyone can think this is okay. Due to the acoustics of the lounge, that meant there was nowhere you could sit in the entire lounge and not hear every word. It was a toss-up whether that or the muzak of the British Airways lounge was better. Overall, I didn’t think one lounge was appreciably better than the other. Neither had a bathroom, and neither had gourmet offerings.IMG_1743 IMG_1741 IMG_1742

Air France KLM Lounge TXL

Air France KLM Lounge TXL

I still had immigration and security to go through, so about 30 minutes before boarding, I headed back into the main terminal, took a rest stop, and then made some last-minute souvenir purchases before heading to the gate, which ended up being the most stressful part of my week (or perhaps month).

I couldn’t tell if there was a separate line for business class passengers, so just got on line. First up was a counter with an immigration agent, who just looked at and stamped my passport. Then there was a standard metal detector and conveyor belt x-ray machine. I went through without incident, but was told by a security agency that I had been selected for a special screening. At this point I was annoyed, but certainly not stressed. They took me to a side area, did a pat down, and then a swab of my neck area and the front and backs of my palms, as well as my bag, theoretically for explosives.

Well, they ran the little swab pads through their machine, and a massive alarm went off.  And the panic in my heart started. Curtain was drawn, walkie talkies deployed. Unfortunately, from there on out, almost no one spoke to me in English and told me anything that was going on. Evidence bags started coming out for the agents’ gloves, and my carry-on bag was ransacked. I was asked to explain what every item in my toiletry kit was. I discerned that they were saying that it was the swabs from my hands that were the problem. One agent then told me that they had to call the boss to see what was the next step. So then the full on German police come by, and no one seemed to be in a rush or looking to explain things to me. The plane was boarding, and I already was thinking about my detention in a German holding facility. I was shaking, so they finally allowed me to sit down. A female officer said something about “Chanel Number 5” and one of the security officers then asked me if I was wearing any perfume. I said just my deodorant, and the soap and shampoos from the Hyatt. More waiting, more panicking in my head. Oh, and I forgot to mention something that made this encounter even more stressful. While I was in Berlin, a meeting got scheduled for me on the morning after I got back. A very important meeting. Let’s just say it was at a residence that lacks color.  So, yeah; no pressure.

Finally, a supervisor of the police officers came over, and suggested re-swabbing me and running the scan again, and also re-running the swab on the initial security agents gloves. “We are going to rerun the tests, and then if it comes back positive again, then the police will decide what happens.” Oh goody. Sure enough, the retests came back negative. And what did the security agent say, “Well today is your lucky day.” Really? Lucky? Coincidentally, the week after I came back, I came across an article commenting on the amount of false positives these explosive trace detection machines have since they test for glycerine — an ingredient in many soaps and lotions. The whole thing took twenty minutes, but it felt like hours and it took awhile for my heart rate to return to normal.

I can’t tell you much about the waiting area post security, because I bolted to the plane where the last passengers were still boarding, with my belt and laptop in hand.

I was ready for a pre-departure drink… Alas, the rest of my trip home was anything but smooth sailing.

One thought on “Exploring Tegel Airport, or The Time I was Detained by German Airport Police and Almost Missed My Flight

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